Very few people in our land are aware of the story of an indomitable Icelandic Lady who made her home here in our forests, and whose name lives on at the Asa Wright Nature Centre.
Asa Gudmundsdottir was a medical nurse in England when she met and married John Newcombe Wright who was enduring the effects of mustard gas suffered during World War One. They were advised to live in the tropics, so came to Trinidad in 1946, and purchased the Spring Hill Estate high in the Arima Valley. The indomitable Asa Wright set about to harvest coffee and cocoa in the rainforest. Her husband was a quiet man, who wrote poems but did not contribute to the running of the estate. He died at Spring Hill in 1955.
The estate had been developed— cut out of the rainforest—by Charles William Meyer, a German man living in Trinidad, and the estate house was built on its present site, being completed in 1908. It was built with hand-cut timber, and from “ajoupa,” a hand-mixed mortar of clay and grasses. To this day the rough-hewn log beams remain intact and solid, supporting the graceful old house which is now the centerpiece of the Asa Wright Nature Centre.
While Asa struggled to make the estate a viable commercial entity which could support her, she would be serenaded by the hundreds of beautiful tropical birds; birds of brilliant foliage with songs to lift the heart and soul of everyone in their vicinity. And the birds were attracting that small group of persons who sought them out, for the love of the birds, for research and for art and photography.
In 1949, Dr William Beebe established the Tropical Research Station of the New York Zoological Society at Simla, lower down the Arima Valley from Spring Hill Estate. Beebe, and other researchers, became friends with the Wrights and Asa often housed guests from Simla at Spring Hill. These persons, along with members of the local Field Naturalists Club, were amazed at the variety and quantities of exotic tropical birds which lived on the estate.
Asa’s attempts to operate a profitable coffee and cocoa estate were unsuccessful, and when foreclosure loomed, local and international naturalists joined forces and purchased the property, and thus founded, in November 1967, The Asa Wright Nature Centre, a not-for-profit Institution dedicated to the preservation and appreciation of the forests of the Arima Valley.
The venture struggled through its early days, but the commitment and dedication of its founders and successor board members saw it prevail and slowly expand into a delightful nature centre, with guest cottage rooms surrounding the stately Main House, and with over ten miles of nature trails winding through its forest and along its flowing streams.
And today, at 50 years on, in the original 100-year-old main house, we celebrate Asa Wright, Trinidad’s wonderful but unsung legacy of nature’s bounty, and all the people who created, developed and still manage and maintain this iconic establishment. Asa’s relatives from Iceland, noted ornithologists, photographers and scientists, have come to Trinidad to celebrate with the dedicated team of board members and staff, this epic anniversary.
The Asa Wright Nature Centre is so well known around the world of “Nature,” but hardly known at all by most of us who live here in Trinidad.
It saddens those of us who appreciate the value of our wilderness areas, and watch the world’s tourism embrace of wilderness sights, sounds and experiences, that our country is investing billions in the boringly, sanitised “all-inclusive” gated resort hotels. It is like we are ashamed of what blessings nature has bestowed upon us, and we need to drain our wetlands and bulldoze our forests to build malls and Sandals to mimic Miami and the Bahamas?
Nature, or eco-tourism, is a rapidly growing market for travellers from Europe, North America and the Far East. However, its success depends upon the presence of natural phenomena which will attract visitors. Man cannot, either in the form of Walt Disney nor Sandals, create nature.
Yes, man can mimic, but the imitation experiences are sanitised videos compared with meeting, challenging and enjoying real nature. And the imitations cost billions to construct!
Our natural attractions, already in place, cost us nothing to build, and little to maintain. Indeed, their destruction, in the name of “progress”, is costly. But too many of us still consider our forests and wetlands to be “bush and swamp, with snake (sic) and bugs”!
My wish, for this 50th anniversary of the Asa Wright Nature Centre is that somehow our governments, corporate sector and citizens generally, learn to appreciate and embrace our enchanting natural environment. And in so doing, we all protect and enhance our forests and their wild occupants for the enjoyment of succeeding generations. And this to be Asa’s legacy!